Friday, June 29, 2012

Setting Off On A Word Pilgrimage

My pilgrimage starts most mornings at my café

“That’s what I like about traveling – you can sit down, maybe talk to someone interesting, see something beautiful, read a good book, and that’s enough to qualify as a good day.  You do that at home and everyone thinks you’re a bum.”
--Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan, from their screenplay for the movie Before Sunrise

What kind of traveler are you?  That’s the question I ask myself every time I hit the road.

There are times, of course, when I have to hit the road and absolutely make the trip from St. Louis to Atlanta before dinner.  But I pass signs all along the way for flea markets, Civil War monuments, and tiny towns like Bell Buckle that must remain a longing in the gut for the sake of the clock.

In the first ten years of our marriage, Brad and I covered a lot of ground on ten-day trips, changing location almost every two days because we felt like we’d never return anywhere or trying to visit every family member in a 200-mile radius of wherever our plane touched down.  But that kind of travel got old.  We found we loved to linger.

And now I sit in France, reading my many books (hooray for e-readers and travel), catching a peek at the beautiful secret gardens that appear like Brigadoon when the enormous courtyard doors to grands maisons open slowly, and making arrangements to meet ex-patriots who live here for lunch because I stumbled upon them online.

However, I want my travel to mean something more than miles traveled and places checked off a list.  I travel knowing I have friends and family who will never go to the places I have the freedom to travel.  That means I try to make my travel count for something, to travel mindfully for my sake as much as theirs.  That’s why I’ve been reading Lavinia Spalding’s book, Writing Away, on travel journaling and Phil Cousineau’s travel book, The Art of Pilgrimage.

“[R]emember that one word trumps no words.”
-- Lavinia Spalding, Writing Away

This is the whole of Spalding’s book condensed into one sentence.  When traveling I always try to journal, but I’m only partially successful.  My inclination to get it perfect means I get behind.  Many journalers might be like me and say, “Oh, I’ll never forget the woman dressed head to toe in shamrock green.”  However, too much happens when traveling and so much pushes that shamrock wonder out of mind.

Her book has a million ways to make your journal count for something and to make it easier than you think it would be.  For example, just pull out the journal five times a day, whether you have anything to say.  It’s all about the habit.  I’m using her example of writing down the alphabet over two pages and jotting down one thing from the trip for each letter.  “P” will stand for “plumbing” since we’ve had trouble with our water heater at the apartment since my arrival and, unlike in the States, you can’t call a plumber and have him there by lunchtime.  Or tomorrow.  Or the next day.

Pictures you scribble, candy wrappers, restaurant receipts, autographs of people you meet.  Anything can be part of a travel journal so you can remember it all.  And when you return home, much of what Spalding said can be applied to daily life if you’re one of those people who’ve declared that you always wanted to keep a journal but thought it would be too hard.  It’s just about a commitment to at least one word a day.  The rest will come.

This photo and the next are from a mural by Khaled Mourani, on the back of a bibliothèque municipal in Dijon.  Wish I knew what it said, but it makes me think of a pilgrimage of the mind

“I also believe in pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler.”
-- Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
Cousineau doesn’t tell us all that we must travel to holy places.  He just wants us to find what is holy to us and travel to understand it or experience it more fully.  He wants everyone to travel and he wants us to find what is sacred along the way, what takes us out of our everyday perspective.  That’s not to say you can’t go a theme park with your family and have a rip-roaring time.  But there is also value in traveling with a purpose, e.g., making it to every major league baseball park if that is your passion, or finding your way back to your family’s origins.

And I’m sure he’d give a big thumb’s up to keeping a pilgrimage journal.

In French travailler means “to work”.  Yes, “travail” and “travel” share a history.  It’s easy to plan a quick weekend getaway.  It’s work to plan a pilgrimage.  But which brings you a greater return?

So of course, you may ask, “Julie, what’s your pilgrimage on this trip to France?

Fair question.  Well, it’s not so much to go to a place as to be in a place.  I came to write, to read, to think about my writing program in a place where writers and thinkers are worshipped.  The streets around me honor Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Michel Montaigne, Emile Zola – even Benjamin Franklin.  I want to write in a place where ancient buildings have plaques announcing un écrivain was born or lived there.  It doesn’t matter if the writer became an international sensation or not.  It is enough that he wrote.

I wish I could say I’m putting down 10,000 words a day.  However, in the silence of my apartment I’m actually doing what writers do.  So that’s something.  I may make a habit out of this – pilgrimaging periodically to write where my favorites have written.

But for now, I think I’ll focus on Spalding’s directions to get at least one word down a day on this trip.  And one after that.  And one after that.

If you’re one to keep a travel journal, tell us about your process.  If you have a pilgrimage of any sort that you have made or would like to make, share that wonderful experience with us in the comments box.  Inspire us all.

Where might your journey take you?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Strolling Through A French Street Market In Dijon

Is it the colors?  Or the rhythm of the place? Or the sense of community?  Whatever it is, I’m addicted to French street markets.

I try to make it to Dijon’s market every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday unless something takes me out of town.  Even if I don’t need fruit, or a cow’s tongue for dinner, or a new 5€ watch, I go just to be part of the scene.  I grab a front row seat at a salon de thé in the heart of the action and just watch for a couple of hours.

For those not acquainted with the French tradition of the open-air market, this is not like anything you might experience back in the States.  The rest of the day’s business waits until you’ve gone to the market to get your cheese or meat or vegetables for the week.  When I look out my window around 8:30 in the morning, I can see a steady stream of people walking toward the center of town, as if being pulled by a magnet.  They carry beautiful baskets (paniers), roll market carts behind them, or have tucked under their arm any of the large decorative, recyclable sacks sold at the checkout line at every food store.

Everyone comes to town on market day.

It won’t take you long to decide who is your favorite fruit seller, or your favorite butcher, or who carries the most interesting clothes.  However, this is not a garage sale.  You don’t try to bargain these vendors down any more than you would try to strike a deal in Walmart.  However, if you buy a lot at one stall, you might be in a position to make a deal.  Or, what’s even better for me, the vendor behind the stand will take a shine to you and throw in something for free.  More than once, I’ve struck up a conversation while buying peppers and bananas and come away with a gift of an apricot or fresh cherries to munch on while I shop.

In response to a request by one of my readers (I’m so sorry I didn’t note who came up with the idea), here’s a montage of market shots pour vous.

I love the explosion of colors in the market – the clothes, the umbrellas, the carousel.


The market is your grocery store, clothing boutique, and gardening shop.

The average produce department back home is never this colorful.

Les Halles, the glass and steel covered part of the market, was designed by Gustav Eiffel.

The market has a stand with Japanese/Chinese foodstuffs.  There seem to be a number of restaurants in town serving this cuisine, but I’m not sure why it seems so popular.

On Saturdays many “causes” set up a stand to hand out pamphlets and get their message out any way possible.  Greenpeace was busy last Saturday.

You may wonder why this mime is dressed like a bride.

That’s because Saturdays is a busy wedding day.  All couples have to first get married at the city hall (that’s the only legally sanctioned ceremony).  Then they head to the churches around the town center for the religious service.  As a results, brides are everywhere in town.

These are my three favorite people at the market.  You can read about Mohamed (in the suit), Noureddine, and Redouane (with the vegetables) in a post from last year.  Just click here.  You all really need to travel to Dijon just to meet my trois beaux garçons.


These are my purchases from the Saturday market.  This beautiful bounty cost me only about $4.

If you are a big market person, tell us about your favorite and what entices you at it.  Or tell us in the comments box what event in your town brings the people together on a regular basis like a weekly street market does in France.

And finally --

Congratulations to Martine and Claire for making correct guesses on my mystery kitchen utensil.  It was a lighter for a gas stove burner, as my landlord quickly demonstrated.  When I squeeze it a little spark happens deep in that tube at the end, which lights the burner.  The reason I didn’t report Martine as a winner when she took the first lighter guess was because it didn’t look like the first pictures I saw when I googled it.  This weekend I went deeper into the search results and finally located something like it.  So she and Claire will be the recipients of a special postcard from Dijon, FR.  Claire – if you want to claim your prize click on my profile where you’ll find my e-mail address.  Send me a message with your address if you want that postcard.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fête de la Musique 2012 - Dijon, France


What a party it was.  Wish you could have been here.  All of France took to the street Thursday night as part of Fête de la Musique.  You might know it as World Music Day, an event that started in 1982 as a fun way around the globe to mark the summer solstice.  Perhaps your city did something to recognize it?  In Dijon music was found on practically every plaza and major intersection.  All of the entertainers were local.

The people of Dijon usually respond in abundance for events like this.  And they happen often in this city.  For the rest of this month there’s a music festival that presents music at all the lesser parks as a way to highlight outlying neighborhoods.  On the last weekend of this month there will be a jazz festival in another corner of the city.

People poured into the center of the city for the festival

That doesn’t even include the organ concerts in the cathedral, the summer opera season, and the music series that brings music to many little pubs and cafés throughout the downtown area.  And about 85% of it is free.  And then we have July . . . more of the same.

So the people showed up in abundance Thursday night.  We were elbow to elbow.  Many of the smaller food sellers moved to the sidewalk to entice pedestrians with crepes or hotdogs or beers.  Cotton candy was my poison of choice.  And the people did conga lines down the street or waltzed or head-bobbed to the music.

"Barbe a Papa" definitely bigger than my head
-- and this wasn't even the largest size they sold

A lot of my favorite music was on the side streets.  I don’t think they were official performers.  More like “I have a monitor and microphone so let’s play something!”  Since you couldn’t come to the party, I’m bringing a bit of the party to you (it's my first time uploading to youTube.  Sorry if you experience technical errors).

I found these guys at the end of rue Berbisey (my street), far from the "official" festival.  They were the most fun, sort of like klezmer music on speed.

How about some smooth French jazz?

Care to dance to some regional music?

I seemed to be the only one in the courtyard who didn't know this tune.

So, what does your community do to celebrate summer?  Please share in the comments box and let us know how many spaces you have available for friends to spend the night when we come to join you in the fun.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Let La Grande Promenade Commence

The French don't need any special clothes for this exercise.
They just put one foot in front of the other

What did you do on Sunday?  Did you race off with your kids to some sports tournament?  Was it a time to hit this week’s sales or race around trying to get all your errands finished before work on Monday morning?  How much rest did you get on this day of rest?  How much time did your family spend together?

Saturday night on rue Berbisey in Dijon was crazy.  Motorcycles were racing through the narrow streets of this neighborhood.  Disembodied voices called out names I couldn’t quite catch.  Occasionally a glass shattered, perhaps at the Australian-themed bar on the corner.  French, Arabic, English, Italian drifted in through my open kitchen window.  Something like a blast on a ram’s horn split the night, perhaps to announce “Let the party begin.”

Then the sun rose.  Residents of the neighborhood scurried down the street, their morning baguettes tucked under their arms.  One by one I heard keys rattling (my key ring has three just to get me from my front door to the street), 300-year old doors banging shut as apartment dwellers depart one by one, the sound of water spraying courtyards and sidewalks as clean as possible when they wear centuries of grime.

A little before noon I step through my big, blue porte and begin my walk across town to the home of a friend who has invited me to lunch.  The diesel cacophony from Saturday night is gone, almost as if a city-wide ordinance has banned any vehicle with an engine.  It’s time for la grande promenade.
A six-year old with blonde hair and long legs like her mother dances down the street trying to teach her younger brother her own particular jazz syncopation – doo doo da doo doo da la la.  A young couple, she with a braid down her back and he with a yellow straw pork pie hat glide by on their bikes.  I turn the corner at rue Piron and pass a whole family – grandparents, parents, toddlers in their Sunday best either heading to church or searching for lunch after.  We encounter a mirror-image family, with a curly blonde pixie on a pink scooter and a purple bunny who squeals in delight when she sees another little girl just like her.

Everyone walks
After lunch my friend and I head to le Arquebeuse, the botanical garden, where all the trees have been decorated with 3 x 3 photographs of cows as part of an exhibition at the science center honoring La Vache.  Every bench is filled with readers, and lovers, and older couples enjoying the sun.  We pass through the garden and begin our march down the Promenade de l’Ouche, a beautiful dappled path with the Ouche River and its ducks and herons and water lilies on one side and a band of trees on the other.

Half of Dijon is on the path.  Fathers and sons weaving bikes in and out.  Young parents pushing strollers.  Older citizens going as fast as their canes will let them.  Fishermen sitting on the shady bank smoking their Gitanes.  Teenagers racing their bikes out to the lake at the end of the trail.  We pass two dozen wooden benches and all are filled with people and their dogs.  There are probably more people out here than walking the town center, which is at least 80% closed for the day.  A few restaurants open up for lunch.  More for dinner.  There is the museum, and the movie theaters.

Sunday in Dijon, though, is reserved for walking.  For quiet.  For calm.  For family and friends.

So, how did you spend your day?

What would be your perfect Sunday?  What kind of Sunday ritual does your family have now or did it have when you were growing up?  Talk about Sundays, past and present, in the comments box, please.

I still don’t have an answer to my quiz from my last post, so the contest is still open.  Hop on over and see if you can figure out the mystery culinary thingamajig.  Maybe this week I’ll take a break from writing – or sitting in cafés – and explore the kitchen stores or take it to the cooking school and ask.

Also, I’m still open to blog or photo ideas you’d like to see (more photos posted on Facebook).


Friday, June 15, 2012

What I'm Reading -- French Edition

I'm NOT reading the offerings in this bookstore across the street from my apartment

Traveling for me can be as much about what I’ll be reading as what I’ll be packing.  For a long trip, like this summer’s five weeks in France, I want to be reading with intention, especially since this is as much as anything a trip to focus on my writing.  The literature for a trip like this goes a bit sideways of the beside-the-pool-summer-bestseller selections.  Without getting too heavy, the books I like take me deeper into a trip by letting me think about where I am and who I am.

No, no, wait.  It’s not as stuffy as all that.  It’s just that I want to read something that gives me more history than the placards alongside the doors of the 16th century grand mansions or something that gives me a bit different perspective about how to travel well (we spend so much more time considering the “where” than the “how”).  And, of course, for this writing trip (it’s not all crème brûlée and crêpes), I’ll need some writing inspiration.

So for your week-end consideration, here is short tour of my France reading list.

Emile Zola Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) and J’Accuse
Dijon has a square near our apartment called Place Emile Zola.  One of the oldest restaurants there is called “The Germinal” after one of the writer’s most significant epic works that dramatized the fall of the bourgeoisie and the rise of the worker.  The Ladies’ Paradise continues along that vein as part of a series of books about a single Paris family that grows its wealth through the large department store it owns.  In this book Zola takes on the growth of 19th century capitalism and consumer culture, changing sexual attitudes, and class conflict.  J’Accuse is Zola’s protest of how the French government handled the Dreyfus Affair.  These may not seem like light vacation reading, but Zola was interested in how the environment shaped behavior, so his novels give me an understanding of French culture in a way no guidebook or history book can.

Phil Cousineau The Art of Pilgrimage
Cousineau examines how travelers engage with each new place they encounter.  He offers anecdotes and lessons that teach us how to build a personal journey and savor our moments.  He doesn’t propose all trips should be religious expeditions, but shows us how to travel with intention so that we see more than just the sites when we are on the road.  If you are only an armchair traveler, the book can show you how to simply journey through your own place or day with more intention and awareness.

Lavinia Spalding Writing Away This book teaches me both how to travel and how to write.  It’s all about keeping a travel journal, even down to what writing tool to use (never, ever, ever use a pencil for a journal).  With my pile of trusty Moleskine notebooks, I’ve vowed on this trip to journal more consistently than I have in the past.  Spalding will make sure I get it done.

Eric Maisel A Writer’s Paris
I may not make it to Paris this trip, and I won’t take up residence in France for a year as he does in this book, but Maisel does let writers see how necessary stepping outside of daily routine and declaring a writing sabbatical can be to productivity.  His exercises and examples of new routines work even if all you can manage is to squeak out a long weekend only a few miles from home.  The greatest danger of this, however, is that you will be tempted to use the place you visit as an escape rather than as inspiration.  Don’t worry -- he is great at guilting you into put your nose to the task.  Even if you’re not a writer in Paris, all of his cultural and historical anecdotes and sidebars make it a unique travelogue to that endlessly fascinating city.  Or you could apply all of his techniques to any other extended creative endeavor you resist completing.

Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
With memoir’s “careful manipulation of vantage point, it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”  Birkerts examines several literary memoirs (as opposed to the merely sensational ones) to discuss how the writer’s present self can reflect back on his present self, reflecting on patterns encountered in events rather than simply giving in to chronology as a guiding structure.  I haven’t gotten very far in it, but the odds are in this book’s favor right now.

And so begins my summer in France.  If you’ve read any of these books, please jump in with your own review.  If you have any other recommendations for books on how to travel well, by all means do not keep them to yourself.  Please share in the comments box.

And as I was asking before I left town, if you have anything you’d like to suggest as blog post or photo themes, let me know.  Some suggestions or photos may not make it into blogs, but “friend” me on Facebook where I’ll also be posting verbal or digital snapshots of the trip.

Calling all culinary experts!  Be the first person to tell me what this kitchen tool is that I found in the utensil drawer of my apartment.  If a web search shows you are correct you WIN A PRIZE.  For enlightening me so thoroughly you’ll win a postcard from France (everybody likes real mail, right?)  Yes, I know it’s not the same as winning an actual trip to France, but leave your answer in the comments box, along with how I can contact you further for your address if you’re a winner.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Paris Taco Trucks and The Secret To Great Writing

Here are bits of this and that I’ve found during this time when I’m not writing but preparing to travel:

As you may recall, the #1 thing I always miss while in France is Mexican food.  It appears that someone heard my distress call and if I’m willing to travel a couple of hundred miles my longing can be satisfied by good ol’ American food trucks.  Apparently when everyone was distracted by all the sex scandals and economic recession in France, some Americans snuck in and convinced a few Paris hipsters that not all food needs to be eaten sitting down while using a knife and fork.  Now they’re off and running with juicy hamburgers, tacos, non-French cheese, and queso sauce.  The young people who line up for these culinary anomalies want to eat standing up at food stands, just like they see everyone doing in the American cop shows that play on French television.  Vive le Mexican!

So my dream of opening a Taco Bell franchise in Dijon and then retiring at my chateau in a few years is not too far off the mark.  I better get started on the paperwork this summer, because it is possible in France to die before all your paperwork for ANYTHING is completed.  Maybe I should locate it next to the Pizza Hut.

For those who want the secret to writing, literary court jester Chuck Wendig has finally agreed to reveal what has made him a successful author.  (I’m pretty sure this formula will work for many other endeavors.)

Or you might decide to attempt to prepare the fabulous recipe for creative success by the always-creative Becky Green Aaronson.  I love Step 3:
Season to taste using the textures of your soul. If your creation is bland, add a pinch of spice, a pound of raw emotion and one additional cup of grit. Blend vigorously until flavor is sublime.

Or maybe it will just be easier to sit back and update my New Year’s resolutions like Brenda Moquez has done.  She gives us “[a] suitable list of alternative resolutions written for a body in motion, a body flawed, a body cracked in places, a body that soars on the page but sometimes hesitates in the mirror, for the body with a heart that is sometimes tentative, and for the body that houses a passion to big to be contained.”

Spend your weekend visiting the writings of all these people who have been immensely creative while I’ve been fruitlessly fussing over how many tank tops to take vs. shirts with sleeves and obsessing endlessly over the long-range forecast for Dijon on Meteo France (so far, it looks like another rainy, cold summer.  Will I never get to wear my new summer sandals?!)

If I don’t post again before I leave next week, then you’ll be seeing me as soon as I figure out how to make the internet work in my apartment.  À bientôt.

Are you a food truck fan?  If so, where and what do you eat? (I love Portland.)  How have you been particularly creative lately?  Please share with us in the comments box any wisdom you’ve gained from your efforts.  And if you’ve revisited any New Year’s resolutions lately, let us in on them.
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